Iowa’s Governor Calls For An End To The Ames Straw Poll

The Governor of Iowa thinks the Ames Straw Poll should be ended, but he really ought to go further than that.

Iowa’s Republican Governor thinks the Ames Straw Poll has outlived its usefulness:

Is one of the quirkiest rituals of the Republican presidential election calendar heading for the grave?

It is, if Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has his say.

Eyeing the wreckage of the 2011 Ames Straw Poll, which Rep. Michele Bachmann won only to fizzle as a candidate soon after, Mr. Branstad wants to do away with the whole thing.

“I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness,” Mr. Branstad said of the 33-year-old GOP ritual. “It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over.”

Going back to 1979, Republican presidential contenders have flocked to Ames, Iowa, in August to eat fried food, dance to country bands and wheedle votes from the party faithful in what amounts to an overblown party fund-raiser disguised as a trial run for the real Iowa caucuses early the next year.

Its track record as an anointer of GOP nominees falls far shy of impressive. Only two victors, Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 1999, went on to win the Iowa caucus the next year and then the nomination in November. And only one, Mr. Bush, went on to become president.

Still, other top Iowa Republicans bristled at Mr. Branstad’s suggestion that the sun had set on Ames.

“Gov. Branstad is wrong, and this is not a decision he will make anyway,” said a peeved A.J. Spiker, chairman of the state GOP. “It is a decision the party and the candidates will make.”

Brandstad is largely correct that the Straw Poll itself is largely pointless in terms of what it tells us about the Presidential race. As we saw in 2011 when Michele Bachmann an Ron Paul came in a first and second, the way the poll is designed makes it easy for candidates to game the system by purchasing the tickets necessary to vote in the poll and then distributing them to supporters who essentially end up attending for free. That’s not necessarily even a very good measure of the ‘grassroots” strength that many of the poll’s supporters claim that it helps to indicate. Moreover, it was rather silly that it was responsible for Tim Pawlenty’s decision to drop out of the race before most of the debates had taken place, and before a single vote had been cast. Finally, the fact that it didn’t even include two candidates who would end up dominating the Republican race for the next two months, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Indeed, it strikes me that the lesson that 2012 teaches those candidates who would run in 2016 is that they should either skip Ames altogether, or only put in a minimal effort, because there’s no real upside in “winning” the thing, and plenty of downside in being perceived, like Pawlenty, as someone who tried to win and failed.

Brandstad’s call to end the Straw Poll, though, are unlikely to lead to anything. As noted above, he has no say in the process since the entire thing is run by the Iowa Republican Party. Indeed, the entire event is nothing more than a massive fundraising event for the state party organization. Not only do they charge for the tickets one must hold in order to vote in the poll, they also charge candidates for the tent space they rent on the site of the event where they entertain event-goers, serve food, and other such things. The price for such tent space can be quite expensive. In 2011, for example, the state GOP pulled in $113,000 in space rental fees alone, with Ron Paul’s campaign spending the most for their space at an astounding $31,000. The Srraw Poll is the single biggest fundraiser for the state party every four years. They are not going to get rid of it, and as long as they don’t get rid of it, there are going to be candidates who will want to participate.

Now if Governor Brandstad really wanted to reform his state’s contribution to the quadrennial game we call Presidential Elections, he could go much further than simply making a suggestion that his state party is going to ignore anyway. He could call for an end to the Iowa Caucuses once and for all. If this past January proved anything, it proved the utter absurdity of the entire caucus system, to the point where the person we were told “won” on Election Night (Mitt Romney) didn’t actually end up getting the most caucus votes after all the counting errors were taken into account. Moreover, as I’ve argued in the past, caucuses are inherently inferior to primaries because they limit the number of people who will turn out to vote. Given the fact that Iowa is the first contest in the nation, the fact that about a hundred thousand people willing to spend a January evening in the cold end up having so much say in Presidential politics is simply absurd. At least if Iowa held a primary, there could be some justification for their favored status on the Presidential calendar. Governor Brandstad could go one better and propose that the absurd Iowa-New Hampshire first idea be abandoned completely in favor of a system of regional mega-primaries. He won’t do either of these things, of course, because he’s from Iowa, but if he really wanted to fix the way we nominate our Presidents, that’s exactly what he’d do.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Geek, Esq. says:

    Pawlenty really ran one of the worst campaigns ever–bettting EVERYTHING on a stupid event like this.

    Funny thing is, had he stayed in, he probably would have beaten Romney, in Iowa and for the nomination. Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry were all destined to flame out. That would have left Snooze-Paw, Romney, and Santorum as the top three in Iowa.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Given the fiascos of the ’11-’12 cycle — Bachmann, Santorum, not even counting the caucus votes correctly much less timely, Paulbot infiltrations, etc. — Iowa has proven that it’s gone full retard; ergo they simply should be jettisoned entirely from the process. Seriously. Let them take a non-binding vote after the convention has occurred and the nominee has been certified. This “Iowa 1st!” nonsense really needs to end. It’s ludicrous. And there’s too much at stake.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    This “Iowa 1st!” nonsense really needs to end. It’s ludicrous. And there’s too much at stake.

    Well Superdestroyer would say that there is nothing at stake in the Iowa GOP caucus. 😉

  4. cd6 says:

    I like all these people who are like “if not for Ames, T-Paw would likely have emerged a strong contender!”

    No he wouldn’t. Nobody liked him. Nobody ever liked him. He was boring. If he hadn’t failed at Ames, he would have failed at the caucauses. Who the hell gets pumped to go their neighbors about how they need to rally round political firebrand Tim Pawlenty?

    And then he would have lost NH. And South Carolina. And whatever the hell was next, I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter, they would have handed him his 4th straight 5th place finish.

    Even when he busted his balls to support Mittens, he got told he wasn’t going to be VP by Tagg. And literally nobody has suggested T-Paw try again in 2016, even though hes a former governer who’s still young.

    But yeah, the Ames straw poll really did him dirty. Give me a break.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    The Ames Straw Poll is invaluable.
    It allows the Nation to see what Republicans are really about deep down in the places that matter.
    Without Ames and events like it a shape-shifting grifter like Romney or Ryan might actually manage to fool the electorate.
    Best we have events like this to peel back the curtain and shed some sunlight on the extreme radicalism that has subsumed the party.
    For once Tsar is right…there really is too much at stake.

  6. On one hand I agree with Governor Branstad that the straw poll is not a useful exercise. But on the other hand, I’m kinda disturbed by the governor presuming to sit in judgement of whether or not a private event should go on.

  7. Geek, Esq. says:


    No he wouldn’t. Nobody liked him. Nobody ever liked him. He was boring.

    He had three major things going for him that would have pushed him over the top:

    1) He wasn’t Mitt Romney
    2) He wasn’t Newt Gingrich
    3) He wasn’t Rick Santorum

    Santorum and Gingrich conducted incredibly hapless, inept, deflated campaigns before the night of the Iowa caucuses. Yet they each were in a position (Gingrich in Florida, Santorum in Michigan) to knock Romney out within a few months.

    In Santorum’s case, the only reason he did well in Iowa was that he was so inept and lackluster that he didn’t draw attention to himself until it was time to vote–everyone else who had drawn attention themselves had imploded by that point.

    The Republicans really, really, really didn’t want to nominate Romney.

  8. Latino_in_Boston says:

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to get rid of this NH, IA first business. But if there’s one thing we have a really hard time getting rid of in the US regarding our electoral system are things with tradition, even if they started for reasons which today are entirely absent or no longer make any sense. To wit: voting on a tuesday; having counties be in charge of elections (as opposed to states) in a way that varies depending not just on the state, but on the county; having partisan controlled elections and the creation of congressional districts and don’t even get me started on the Electoral College.

  9. MBunge says:

    @cd6: “No he wouldn’t. Nobody liked him. Nobody ever liked him. He was boring”

    Unlike that volcano of personal charisma that is Mitt Romney?

    T-Paw would have been a perfect acceptable alternative for the party after conservatives trashed the pro-gay, pro-choice father of Obamacare. The problem is the “anybody but Romney” movement was never able to solidify because so much of the right wing media had rallied behind Romney in 2008 to try and stop McCain that they couldn’t go all out to oppose him this time without looking like soulless hacks even to themselves. Then when Fox News pretty much got on the Romney train, there was no longer any need for an acceptable alternative.


  10. bill says:

    watching or presidential hopefuls have to kiss ass in all these backwards states like iowa, nh, etc. is enough to make anyone queasy.

  11. superdestroyer says:


    Do you really think that there is a single Republican who is competent in policy, has a decent level of charisma, and who can withstand the media machine of the David Axelrod lead campaign machine.

    My guess is that the favorites of the left such as Jon Huntsman would end up as a bigger loser than Romney after the Democrats were through with him. I keep wondering how pundits and wonks will keep themselves entertained if Hillary Clinton decides to run and wins both Iowa and New Hampshire? Do you think the wonks will be able to keep themselves entertained with polling data and verbal slip ups when someone like Nate Silver gives Clinton a 90% or more chance of winning 10 months before the first Tuesday in November?

  12. The real problem here is using the Plurality Voting system, where voters can only vote for one candidate. Here’s the kind of problem you can get:

    35% Bachmann > Pawlenty > Huntsman
    33% Huntsman > Pawlenty > Bachmann
    32% Pawlenty > others

    Bachmann is not only too far to the religious right for many Republicans, she’s far too polarizing to win in a general election. Huntsman is moderate enough to have better chances of winning in the general election, but he’s not conservative enough for many Republicans. Pawlenty probably is arguably the best compromise.

    And indeed, Pawlenty defeats both opponents by enormous head-to-head margins. He beats Bachmann by 65% to 35%, and he defeats Huntsman by 67% to 33%. But thanks to the horrible Plurality voting system, Bachmann wins. Plurality Voting is very bad at measuring overall support.

    If either major party were to adopt Approval Voting or Score Voting for endorsement processes like this, they would immediately have a massive advantage over the other party. Probably for years, because it would take the other party time to figure adjust accordingly. And even once they did adjust, the result would be better candidates running on both sides, which can only make the USA stronger.

    Clay Shentrup
    The Center for Election Science